At last, a modicum of respect for Neddie; the memorial service is being held today…
At last, a modicum of respect for Neddie; the memorial service is being held today…
One of our fave, though reclusive, local artists Bob Georgeson has kicked off into the bloggosphere. Keep up at http://bobgeorgeson.blogspot.com.au
We’re not going to mention the election(!) – too awful to contemplate. What a profligate waste of opportunity.
If Labor does somehow manage to scrape through (and lordy hopes they will) then they’d better pull their finger out quick smart.
Tragic. Stupid. AVOIDABLE.
The prelude to a two-day indigenous contemporary art workshop at the Bega Valley Regional Gallery. Artist/mentors Michael Brogan, Kamahi Djordan King and Garry Jones get into a huddle with Megsie (sister-wanna-be) and Rachel (behind the camera) to strategize the upcoming intensive 2-day program…
Apologies to those who’ve been waiting (some impatiently!) for this article, but we’ve been sidetracked by all manner of other pressing commitments.
When Charles (Chick) Butcher invited Megsie to open this show at Sabbia she was somewhat taken aback. The Tilba/Bega connection made sense, as did the contemporary art practice (as opposed to craft) context – but it was a provocative move on Chick’s part given Megsie’s…how shall we put it?…somewhat uncompliant relationship with the incumbent glass Establishment. Chick, only too well aware of the implications has, of course, been diligently pushing his own barrow in that regard so presumably the Megsie factor was, in some respects, a strategic buttressing of stance. Besides, he knew that she’d be completely frank about the work and that she wouldn’t give a speech full of the standard (gl)ass licking platitudes. So far so good. But the lead in to the show was less than ideal; Chick’s mooted trip down the coast to discuss the work/his mindset/the premise didn’t eventuate and a phone call from Mat two days before the event was unrevealingly brief. By the time the delayed Rex flight landed in Sydney there was barely enough time to preview the show, chat up the artists and gauge the work sufficiently to give anything other than a fairly superficial take. Hardly satisfactory from anybody’s point of view - particularly for Megsie who prefers to ponder such things at reasonable length before pronouncing an opinion.
Here, then, is a more fully considered appraisal of After the Object…
Charles Butcher has for some time now been chafing under the constraints of the commercial gallery/glass establishment patronage system whereby emerging practitioners are obliged to conform to hierarchically controlled avenues of advancement, paved by sycophancy and favouritism, which exert a contrived market driven pressure to produce branded collectable product. Nothing wrong with the latter perse if technical mastercraftmanship alone is your penultimate goal. But if you have a compulsion to express yourself - to practice art as opposed to craft - then the way ahead is not so clear, and for a variety of reasons; the most fundamental of which is having possession of a genuine artistic bent. Because regardless of supercilious protestations from various tertiary nobs, this is not something that can be taught - it’s a (possibly preter)natural ability that you either have or have not. Yes, yes, yes; training in technique is mandatory (craftsmanship provides the essential ‘bones’ of a serious artistic practice), tertiary courses do offer the optimum facilities, an education in the arts is key to an informed and enriched practice. Going to an accredited Art School’s glass workshop is undeniably a crucial component of one’s professional development, but it doesn’t maketh the artist – it merely furbishes the tools/hones the skills and burnishes whatever artistic sensibility, hopefully, exists.
[And in the worst case scenarios we know full well from anecdotal evidence that it can crush real talent and potential if the student in question doesn't fit the 'company mould' and/or have the requisite balls to soldier on regardless. It takes some people years to rebuild self-confidence and recover from what many describe as creative violation by the academy. And before you all get up on your brittle high horses, this isn't only confined to glass. n(Ed)]
Charles Butcher, as it happens, has all the hallmarks of the real thing - and with plenty of attitude to match. Technically at the top of his game, he is arguably producing the best cast work in the country as we speak. And not because he’s interested in the quantum competitive stakes (like the ‘I wanna win the Ranamok twice’ brigade.) He doesn’t connive to make work to win prizes (though he does win them nonetheless – he picked up this year’s Tom Malone), he is driven instead intuitively toward the bigger picture and a determined maintenance of unyeilding artistic integrity - resisting any attempts to steer his work towards the ‘safe-haven’ of the manipulated collectors’ bazaar. In other words, he refuses to play the game; he won’t be told what to make by his dealers, he won’t perform like the grateful trained monkey when offered a show and he won’t be brought to heel by those who cling grimly to their tenacious hold on the higher rungs of the glass food chain.
And all power to him for that, because it makes him a fine role model for the next generation of emerging hopefuls. He’s living proof that you can have a successful practice without resorting to the sychophantic scheming that’s become integral to advancement into the ranks of the a-list of Australian glass – the so called “succession” game. Butcher is not prepared to wait submissively for the nod of approval, and neither he should – he’s already eclipsed his ‘teachers’, if only they’d have the grace to concede as much. Technically his work is quite astonishing. It’s got the lot; mastery and control, exquisite tuning and finish, great conceptual resolution, intelligent design, sophisticated aesthetics…
But wait, there’s so much more – and the single most important element is ticker (aka courage/heart.) When Sabbia Gallery offered Butcher his latest show he accepted on the proviso that he had full artistic direction of the space and that he be allowed to exhibit in tandem with his long time confrère, painter Mathew Heaney (who, like Butcher, has no interest in contributing to the interior decor/designer slant of the current art market.) Purists at heart, both had chewed the art philosophic fat for years and had long talked of co-exhibiting in a show that afforded them a true measure of autonomy; more specifically, the freedom of a visually emotive discourse. Both were into Rothko, and wanted to make work that expressed the physical and emotional; work that reflected their personal ongoing struggles with life, death and the intractable universe. Both share, like Rothko, a healthy disdain for the stuffiness of bourgeois pretension and a keen sense of dissention (particularly of the anti-elitist variety). Neither has the stomach for ‘being managed’. They behave, in effect, as one always imagined artists should behave – before the latter-day era of professional practice contorted artists into designer-chic middle class conformist drones.
[Give us the scruffy angst-ridden boho prodigy any day, pl-ease...and Chick, we're happy to report, has already got the look down pat! n(Ed)]
In After the Object, the exhibiting credo is not unlike that of Rothko and Gottlieb’s in 1942; “We favour the simple expression of the complex thought.” Indeed, hinged on another quotation of Rothko’s, ”silence is accurate”, the show is an orchestration of mood that strikes just the right chord of (almost morbid)contemplation.
Setting themselves a limit of four pieces each, the formal spacing of the works transformed the gallery into a vault-like chamber (or, yes, a chapel even, if you prefer to stick with the Rothko strain) that lent a sense of archaic memorial to an otherwise conventional gallery space. The limited palette, loaded symbolism and emotive overtones are immediately decipherable; not because they’re obvious or clichéd but rather because they’re so sensitively, and astutely, handled. The block of fathomless black on the rusted cruciform (After the Object 1), for instance, is astonishingly powerful - and incredibly effective. We don’t need to know the specifics of the quasi-religious rationale behind the piece, we unerringly respond to the arcane nature of it regardless. And the finish on the glass – so highly polished – is nothing short of superb. This last aspect of Butcher’s practice carries equal weight in its ultimate success – above all else he understands the importance of finish. The pieces standing sentinel at either end of the gallery have the texture of very finely chiselled monumental stone; After the Object 4 glows at the entrance with the soft, matt luminosity of alabaster…
…while After the Object 3 keeps sombre watch from the opposite end of the room, restrained by a wide black border reminiscent of Victorian mourning paper…
The procession of glass is flanked by Heaney’s large canvasses, hanging the length of the room like huge windows to the darkening firmament; adding ever deeper notes of mournfulness in an unfolding tragi-drama. For Heaney, abstract painting is akin to sound and music and for the purposes of this exhibition he endeavoured to “create four works that would penetrate that same area of the psyche. That area beyond the rational.” The interregnum between mind and matter.
Heaney’s work most certainly hits the perfect atmospheric tone/pitch, making the show, from a curatorial point of view, highly successful. More importantly, the overall sensibility of the show transformed the venue into a bone fide contemporary art space as opposed to Sabbia’s usual modish craft gallery vibe. In its exhibition blurb Sabbia actually made quite a point of reiterating ”how unique”, “how unusual” the show was for their gallery – presumably in terms of it being a well integrated, carefully conceived and balanced curatorial hang. Perhaps they might re-evaluate their habitual modus operandi and consider the benefits of instigating the exception as the rule. (It’s not a commercially dangerous proposition, after all – three works in this show did sell, and for big bikkies, notwithstanding the squeeze of the GFC.)
Otherwise, we suspect, craft will sadly continue to find itself paley loitering at the fringe of contemporary art…(apologies to Keats and PK.)
Megan Bottari is a NSW based artist/writer/curator. She was offered no inducements, financial or otherwise, for this review apart from a $40 taxi fare in lieu of being picked up from the airport.
For snaps of the opening night go here.
The establishment of this blog was triggered by a number of factors, not the least being a paper that I stumbled across last year while researching a (not entirely)unconnected subject. The paper in question, given by Sue Rowley during the Ausglass Conference of 1993, presented a hypothetical sketch of the Australian Glass Community and it instantly struck a familiar chord. Indeed it appeared to be an astonishingly prescient description of the (Canberra) glass community circa 2007!! So much so that I reckon it warrants a reprint:
Australian Glass Community
(i)‘The glass community’ is likely to be a relatively cohesive community, marked out with clearly defined boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, somewhat isolationist in its attitudes to other art forms.
(ii)‘The glass community’ is likely to be internationalist rather than nationalist or local in outlook.
(iii) Trends in glass are likely to reflect and respond to those in architecture and interior design, more so than those of contemporary arts or even other craft practices. This is a manifestation of a closer allegiance of glass practice to the public and institutional sector than to the domestic domain, both in terms of production (Jam Factory, Meat Market, and art schools) and consumption (commissions, wholesale, architectural, design and manufacturing collaborations.)
(iv) The primary values of ‘the glass community’ are likely to be derived from a modernist formal aesthetic, a craft-based respect for technical virtuosity and sensitivity to the medium and a scientific understanding of the properties of glass. The properties of the material and the ways in which glass is invested with cultural meaning are highly suggestive of a keen interest in abstraction, in the qualities of light, in its relations with the scientific modes of investigation, a cool intellectualism which is strongly associated with certain aspects of modernism in the visual arts. And this appears to be borne out in the practice.
(v) The use of narrative, of cultural meaning, experience and identity, of memory and history, whilst not beyond the range of either the material or individual practitioners, appears not to be the subject of collective and sustained critical investigation by the glass community. Forays into post-modernism are likely to be banal appropriations of a ‘look’ of decorative pastiche, ironic eclecticism and popular culture allusion, but is likely to paper over the critical enquiring intellectual stance of post-modernism towards art and culture. Heaven knows what will happen when post-colonial theory is translated into a design aesthetic! Still that’s probably a few years down the track yet.
(vi) ‘The glass community’ is likely to be a conservative community, protecting privilege and resisting subversive incursions from other art forms and intellectual practices. It’s likely to place a strong value on its ‘disciplinary’ integrity. But this enforcement of the ‘discipline’ is likely to function as a mode of control and a means of reinforcing the existing power structures within the glass community. In turn, its recognition of excellence is likely to be along a narrow band of criteria. A great deal of the practice is likely to be a ‘normal science’ – that is, pushing out the parameters that are constituted from within existing technical and formal parameters.
(vii) Where are the sources of renewal for such a community? I guess at three:
(a) International – European and American – trends in glass, which presumably respond to their specific cultural milieu in varying ways.
(b) Architecture and contemporary design, especially in relation to the public domain.
(c) Insurgency. The generation which in a sense constitutes the founding fathers of glass are likely to seek to extend their authority indefinitely or at least to nominate their disciples as successors: but experience from other disciplines and art forms suggests that new leaders tend to emerge from previously marginalized areas of thought and practice. This can be a bitter time, and seems to be especially so in tight knit communities which have formed their sense of cohesion, identity and value around a core of disciplinary values which appear to be at stake in changes of leadership: concurrent shifts of paradigm, leadership and values can mean painful upheavals.
Well, golly gosh.
I was once told at art school that ‘glassies’ (students in the glass workshop) had been given the not entirely flattering nickname, ‘the penguins’ – “because you lot always waddle around together in one big group, quacking (or whatever noise it is that penguins make) away in unison.” Tragic but true, it must be said. It pays, in glass, to toe the company line. Not that anybody would confess to that – on the contrary the hierarchy will assure all and sundry that there is a healthy respect for, and indeed encouragement of, counter points of view. Well, at the risk of being vulgar, that’s absolute bollocks of course. Canberra is classically cabalistic, frankly, and disaffection is ‘discouraged’. We have a rigid culture of court favouritism and slippered bullying, where success is predicated on anointment as one of a very selectively groomed few, and wannabes are loath to damage their chance of acceptance into the rarefied establishment fold. I had often wondered why people just sat through meetings in absolute silence while the serial acolytes mouthed incorporated approbation and obsequious blandishments – I soon found out, of course. Anyone foolish enough to venture an unsanctioned or, god forbid, unsolicited, independent view is very swiftly knocked back into place. (Snarled at, even! There is obviously a very loose interpretation of ‘respect’ at play.) It’s pure Animal Farm, of course – all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. So while it might be horribly disappointing, it’s hardly surprising that people are careful not say anything out of place (well, not in the open, or on the record, at any rate.) Late last year I was collared by the Tom Cruise of Australian Glass and berated over remarks that I’d made – allegedly reported to him by ‘eminent people’ (goodness!!) – apropos the appointment of the Director of the new Canberra Glassworks (a misquotation, as it happened.) He rounded off with the warning “This is a very small community and if you want to be part of it you’d better start watching what you say.” To which I replied “Well, actually, I already am part of this community and you know what? My opinions are as valid as anybody else’s.”
I’m not too keen on threats – and they’re usually hopelessly counter-productive at any rate. I’d already been thinking for some time about starting a blog, so the incident really just cemented the determination to kick-start an (authentically) open forum that would give voice to, and highlight, the rich diversity that is the wider Canberra Glass scene. The vibrant Fringe, so to speak – as opposed to the relentlessly promoted ‘usual list of suspects’ who are routinely trotted out, ad infinitum. Not that their work isn’t in the least deserving, but it’s not all that there is – and the repetition becomes a little tedious. This is an era focused firmly on market convention, and the attendant conservatism leads to a very stultified and joyless artistic scene indeed. It’s time to mount the breeches and arc up the insurgency. Otherwise we’re looking down the barrel of an alarmingly inbred and creatively bankrupt scenario indeed. I’m going to leave all the pompous, bombastic pontificating to those who clearly profit from it, and train my sights instead on anything and everything that genuinely catches my roving eye and curious attention…
Megan Bottari, 2007.